Morocco – August 2003
Soft sell in Tetouan
Nota Bene: I wrote this quite some time ago, during my second oversees trip to Spain, Portugal, Gibralter, and Morocco. I met some good people (some of whom I still keep in touch, Noodles… looking at you, kid!) and had some epiphanal experiences. This is entirely unedited from my 2004 article. It was published somewhere, wbut I can;t for the life of me remember where.
When I was first told that I bargain like a Berber, all I was trying to do was get a fair price for a broken down room in Fez with no toilet and a cold water shower. It does wonders when you speak the language (French) and I was in no mood give in. Much. But acquiesce we did, as gullible westerners so often do, and later, when we were able to appreciate the full meaning of those words, we gave in again, and we bought Berber carpets.
Now the selling of carpets, as with the selling of almost anything of interest in the souks of Morocco, is an intense experience. One must not show any interest at all in anything at all unless willing to endure an intricate and protracted procedure. Of course we’d arrived in Tetouan clean off the boat, so to speak, and we knew none of this. It took exactly an hour and ten minutes before we were whisked off to our first carpet store, by a kind young gentleman who offered to show us around.
We almost got thrown out of the shop in the first few minutes. My travel partners, Noodles and Kim, and I were anxious not to give offence, so when I discretely mentioned to Adam (our Berber host) that we weren’t interested in carpets today, he turned very serious on us and spoke tersely; “I invited you here for tea. Did I say anything about selling you carpets?” I felt like a cad.
Mint tea is a tradition in Morocco. Sometimes (usually?) it is the precursor to some sort of transaction, but I remembered from somewhere that if tea is offered, one may indulge without having to transact. So we sat down, and we spent a glorious few hours together learning about Tetouan and about Adam, or Abdul as he’s more properly known to his local friends. He was Berber; a member of the tribe of native North Africans who are known through five thousand years of recorded history. They are famous for being fierce warriors and fiercer merchants. They are the ethnic majority in Morocco, but many have chosen to assimilate and meld with their Arab brethren. Only recently have they begun to reassert their identity after centuries of colonization and domination. And they are the friendliest people I have ever met.
Our tour of Tetouan began on Adam’s rooftop patio overlooking the ancient medina. Rising up the hill, it is a vision of whitewashed cubist architecture, so very simple, yet so very incongruous. Laundry hanging on clothes lines competes with ancient television antennae and the ever popular satellite dish. The old city is a rabbit warren of alleys, covered pathways and dead ends, and without a guide we would have been wonderfully lost. There is little order to the mayhem. In the opposite direction, the Rif mountains, rising green and verdant even in the middle of August. Different cities have their characteristic colours. Chefchaouen is blue, Tetouan is almost pure white.
Inside the Medina there are the different neighborhoods. One sells livestock and poultry, another houses the tannery and sells leather goods. Throughout are throngs of seemingly helpful locals intent on steering you towards a particular shop where they hope to earn a commission on anything you buy. Such a faus guide (false guide, or tout) is how we arrived at Adam’s doorstep. But instead of selling us carpets, Adam toured us around the town, and spent the afternoon showing us the inner workings of the city.
When evening came, Adam offered us two options. During our wanderings, we had had the good fortune of being invited to a traditional Berber wedding. In anticipation, we had gone shopping for appropriate attire, which for both myself and my female companions would have been the traditional Jalaba, or robe. Think Jedi cloak, with or without the hood. Having donned our new clothing, and feeling a mixture of sheepishness and shy apprehension, we continued our exploration. We were worried about how locals would react to westerners wearing traditional garb. Certainly we didn’t stand out Ð everyone wore what we wore. But our worry was unfounded, and we were received with many happy smiles and handshakes from locals who were much impressed. Our second option for the evening came when Adam met up with an old friend. We were now invited to his familys cottage up in the mountains to spend the night.
I had done some limited reading about Morocco before I arrived. It had been a last minute addition to my tour of Spain and Portugal, so I admit I was unprepared. I had met Kim and Noodles, an Aussie and a South African, on my way back from Gibralter, and somehow we ended up in Morocco for a week together. One of the few things I remembered had to do with Berber hospitality; it was particularly gracious, I was led to believe. So I thought nothing of jumping all over Adam’s invitation. The girls, naturally cautious and tired after a long day anyways, were more predisposed to head back to the room and grab an early evening. So off I went with Adam and his childhood friend on an hour long cab ride towards cottage country in the Rif mountains.
Walking the ill-lit streets of a little village in the middle of nowhere, with someone I had met only hours earlier might not have been the silliest thing I’ve done in my life, but it ranks right up there. Perhaps I should have left note with my consulate as a back up. Regardless, after a half hour hike up the hill (Adam had wanted me to appreciate the views of Tetouan shrouded in its magical glow, on the opposite valley) we came to Muhammad’s family home. It was about midnight by now, and we were far from going to sleep. Instead we did what now seems entirely reasonable Ð we had a late supper. Muhammad’s brothers tore into the kitchen and rustled up the best meal I would have that summer. And in the meantime, we talked in broken French, English and Arabic about myself, them, and their futures. We ate as locals do, with our fingers from a communal bowl. Wonderful stews with fresh flat breads. And when it was over, we hiked another half hour up to the family cottage further up the mountain, and then slept under the stars, Tetouan twinkling far below.
We awoke with the Sun, and to a bowl of fresh figs which had been harvested that morning from a nearby grove. Fresh, and soaking in water, they were sweet and plump and delicious. Afterwards, I was dropped off to my room, where I reacquainted myself with the girls, and recounted my exploits.
We visited Adam in his shop later that morning. A tour group of boisterous Spaniards, French, and Germans was just packing up and preparing to leave. There were brown wrapped parcels under every arm, and the Visa cards glinted in the fluorescent light. Adam was clearly in his element, gracious in a reserved way, helpful and humble. And making a killing it seemed. We noticed that the cups of unfinished mint tea were smaller than ours had been, perhaps with a few sprigs fewer of mint as well. When the tourists had left, we sat down again in a cool and quiet nook surrounded by beautifully woven woolen masterpieces. It was the end of our time here, and still Adam had not brought up the issue of selling carpets. We asked about this.
Adam, you see, did not regard us as tourists. He saw us as travelers interested in learning about the people and the places his home had to offer. We had taken an interest in him and his life, and he truly appreciated that. Things seemed different, he said, and if we were interested in looking at carpets, he would certainly oblige, but we would have to ask; he would not offer. The girls and I looked at each other, and whether it was out of guilt or genuine interest I cannot now say. But we asked to look at carpets.
Of the many memories I brought home with me from this trip, I shall never forget Adam and the doors he opened for me. We spent fair coin on carpets that day, and I regret not one bit of it. Among the most treasured of my souvenirs are my two Berber rugs that lay on either side of my bed. When I look at them I think back to great people and great sights, and the most subtle sales technique I’m sure anyone will ever experience.